Critics have showered Dallas Buyers Club with praise, which is good news for Focus Features and Matthew McConaughey, whose outsized performance swings for the fences. But it's bad news for LGBT history and the history of AIDS activism.
McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, a Texan homophobe who loves rodeo, drugs, booze, and loose women and scams for cash. The chance discovery in 1985 that he has HIV and a T-cell count of 9 marks him for imminent death, but he won't go down easy. He buys AZT stolen from a study. He smuggles unproven treatments home from Mexico to sell at a profit, cutting a deal with a drug-addicted transgender woman (a transcendent Jared Leto) who disgusts him for access to gay men who might be desperate enough to pay.
"What is largely missing is the sense that Ron's efforts are part of a larger movement," the New York Times review diplomatically suggests. Variety puts it more artlessly, gushing over McConaughey as "a redneck bigot who becomes the unlikely savior to a generation of gay men frightened by a disease they don't yet understand."
Really? Is that how you remember it, if you remember it?
ACT UP doesn't exist in Dallas Buyers Club, nor do NAPWA, the PWA Health Group, GMHC, John James' AIDS Treatment News, the Healing Alternatives Foundation. The film's only gay characters are weak, docile, dithering, relegated to the background, standing in line for what Woodroof is selling -- and overselling.
In 1986, after years of blind rage -- at the sickness and sanctimony, the calls for quarantine, the hawking of crystals; at affirmation-spewing quacks like Louise Hay; at the sheer, harrowing loss of friends and neighbors and co-workers -- I stumbled into Project Inform's shabby little office in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. Two men, Tom Jefferson and Ron Koslow ("a Texas sissy, honey"), were on the phones, answering questions about experimental treatments for AIDS. (There was no other kind, of course.) I learned to take calls. I stuffed mailing packets with information about ribavirin, AL721, isoprinosine, interferon, rifabutin, pentamidine, fluconazole, and dextran sulfate and how to get them. I scanned the AmfAR Treatment Directory and study lists from all over to identify clinical trials that our callers might qualify for.
There were only five of us -- Tom, Ron, and I in the office, plus our co-founders Martin Delaney and Joe Brewer -- and we all had full-time jobs too. Joe was a tireless organizer. Marty was always off writing or networking or lobbying the FDA and NIH. We had an unofficial sixth in Jim Corti, whom nobody else seems to remember now, but who did what Ron Woodroof did, only better and longer and not for money.
When Tom and Ron died, Marty presented me with business cards declaring me Project Inform's first "Hotline Manager." The phones never stopped. Researchers conflicted by the ethics of the trials that they were conducting called to leak findings to us in advance of their publication. Lance Loud, the first gay reality-show star, was a frequent (and fun) caller, along with his nosy, worried mother Pat. I talked to grandmothers on cruises to Japan or Europe, throwing their vacation clothes overboard at night so that they could fill their suitcases with drugs that the FDA wouldn't permit their grandsons to have.
We gave out phone numbers of farmacias in Juarez and Tijuana where ribavirin could be bought over the counter. We kept in touch with buyers clubs in Los Angeles, San Diego, D.C., Atlanta, New York, and yes, Dallas too, to keep up on what they were stocking and how to reach them. (They moved a lot.) I don't know if I ever spoke to the real-life Ron Woodroof. We were circumspect about names.
We taught ourselves to read medical journals and were far more sophisticated about AIDS than anyone in Dallas Buyers Club is. The movie distorts the facts about AZT, for instance, to make Woodroof seem heroic for his murderous advice to others not to take it. It's true that there were HIV deniers and AZT deniers in our midst who were pushing vitamins and herbs, even regular gusts of ozone up the butt, and clearly AZT had serious toxicities at the dosage tested. It was also clear that AZT worked. Unflagging pressure from Marty and ACT UP and so many others led to expedited approval, before an optimal dose could be established. And why not, since the course of HIV without treatment had already been demonstrated thousands of times?
We were, overwhelmingly, gay men, with our lesbian friends and our mothers and brothers and sisters who wanted to keep us alive. We did what we did because the government wouldn't and the medical establishment didn't know how. We did it because we hated death and would do anything to deprive HIV of one more corpse, friend or stranger. And in the awful crucible of that time, something that had earned the right to be called a gay "community" was born.
Just not in Dallas Buyers Club.
I'm a writer myself. I get the attraction to the unlikely hero, the conversion story -- St. Paul struck by lightning on the road to Damascus. But nobody goes on to claim that St. Paul invented Jesus. Dallas Buyers Club steals our story and tells it like we weren't even there.
What can we do about it? We can honor the heroes of our plague years who staved off our obliteration with no thought toward being played by movie stars. Every gay man, anyone ever affected by AIDS, should know the name Martin Delaney. Learn about him in The New York Times or The Lancet or the American Journalism Review. See why Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, flew to San Francisco to deliver his eulogy. Read Jonathan Kwitny's Acceptable Risks and Arthur Kahn's AIDS, the Winter War. Both books are going out of print. Don't let the story of what really happened, and who made it happen, disappear with them.